Revisiting the past "Ah Boys To Men" trilogy

Casey Chong

Sergeant Ong (Tosh Zhang) and Lieutenant Zhang Xinyi (Apple Chan) in "Ah Boys To Men 4".

Sergeant Ong (Tosh Zhang), Lobang (Wang Weiliang), Ken Chow (Joshua Tan) and Aloysius (Maxi Lim) returns in the fourth instalment of "Ah Boys To Men" franchise since their last outing via 2015's "Ah Boys To Men 3: Frogmen"!

Frankly, it's easy to see why. The first three movies were all huge box-office hits in Singapore, making them the country's most financially successful franchise of all-time.

With "Ah Boys To Men 4" reporting back for duty, here is the recap of the previous three "Ah Boys To Men" movies.

1. "Ah Boys To Men" (2012)


Ken Chow (Joshua Tan) and Sergeant Ong (Tosh Zhang) in "Ah Boys To Men".

Prior to the arrival of Jack Neo's "Ah Boys To Men" in 2012, fans of Singaporean cinema would probably remember the hugely-popular local army-themed comedy known as "Army Daze" back in 1996.

That movie, which adapted from Michael Chiang's 1987 hit theatrical play, was often regarded as the cinematic benchmark that depicts the hilarious and dramatic experiences of Singaporean male youth performing their National Service (NS) duties in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

It seems like an uphill task when Jack Neo decided to make his own dramedy version of a local army-themed movie about NS. But he managed to turn "Ah Boys To Men" into an entertaining, yet well-meaning dramedy that pays tribute to Singapore's National Service.

Released in the conjunction with Singapore's NS45 (45th anniversary of National Service) campaign "From Fathers To Sons", "Ah Boys To Men" revolves around an immature and spoilt rich teenager named Ken Chow (Joshua Tan) who despises the fact that he needs to commit to National Service and is unable to join his girlfriend Amy (Qiu Qiu) to study overseas.

Despite his overprotective mom's (Irene Ang, of TV's "Phua Chu Kang") effort in finding ways to help her son skip NS, the plan backfires and Ken still ends up being sent away to serve his National Service duty in the Basic Military Training Centre at Pulau Tekong. From there, he meets his fellow section and bunk mates which includes the highly resourceful Lobang (Wang Weiliang), the bespectacled Aloysius "Wayang King" Jin (Maxi Lim) and IP Man (Noah Yap). Soon, each of them have to endure their Basic Military Training (BMT) experiences under the stern leadership of Sergeant Ong (Tosh Zhang).

At the time of its release, "Ah Boys To Men" was reportedly the most expensive Singaporean movie ever made as it carried an SGD$3 million budget. The huge gamble paid off when the movie proved to be a huge hit at the Singaporean box office.

Much of the success is largely thanks to Jack Neo's funny yet poignant direction that made this movie relatable to every Singaporean who have been through the NS experience. Another highlight here is the excellent young cast made up of Ken Chow, Wang Weiliang, Maxi Lim and Tosh Zhang. Although Neo's message regarding the importance of serving NS tends to get preachy, the underlying universal themes of friendship, loyalty, determination and team spirit are engaging enough to make "Ah Boys To Men" one of the best Singaporean movies ever seen in the recent years.

2. "Ah Boys To Men 2" (2013)


(L-R) Aloysius, Ken Chow and Lobang in "Ah Boys To Men 2".

Following the huge success of "Ah Boys To Men" in 2012, the beloved army-themed dramedy franchise quickly resumed with the second part of the duology.

In this sequel, Ken is no longer the same rebellious person and has since become a better person after learning a hard lesson in the first movie. But his positive attitude and change of personality doesn't sit well with some of his section mates including Lobang.

If there's one thing that "Ah Boys To Men 2" outdid its predecessor in, is the sequel doesn't restrict to focusing too much on Ken Chow like the first movie. Instead, Neo has successfully brought a nice balance to expanding other characters (e.g. Lobang, Aloysius) as well. Likewise, the obvious propaganda and the preachiness of serving NS remains intact in this sequel. But at the same time, "Ah Boys To Men 2" largely succeeds for its relevant yet affecting story about these young recruits undergoing hell and back over the course of their BMT training.

Due to the mass popularity of the first movie, "Ah Boys To Men 2" continues to live up to its expectation and even outperformed the predecessor to become the highest-grossing local movie in the Singaporean box-office.

3. "Ah Boys To Men 3: Frogmen" (2015)


One of the gruelling NDU training scenes in "Ah Boys To Men 3: Frogmen".

After wrapping up the duology of "Ah Boys To Men", writer-director Jack Neo returns for another sequel. But instead of direct continuity, Neo hits a reset button by offering a "what-if" or more appropriately, an "alternate universe" of the same beloved characters (Ken Chow, Lobang and Aloysius) joining the elite Naval Diving Unit (NDU) instead of BMT like the first two movies. Even with the return of the cast reprising their roles, "Ah Boys To Men 3: Frogmen" bears no relation to the first two movies. The NDU theme in this third movie more or less carries the same storytelling beat like the BMT-themed "Ah Boys To Men" duology.

This time, Ken is a character looking to find his way out of NDU to join the Air Force instead. Lobang, in the meantime, remains the same street-smart character while Aloysius reprises his "Mr-Know-It-All" kind of character just like the first two movies. The third movie also introduces Hong Kong actor Wesley Wong (son of veteran actor Melvin Wong, best known in 1986's "Righting Wrongs" opposite Yuen Biao) as a gangster named Hei Long.

Although "Ah Boys To Men 3: Frogmen" is shaped like a reboot of sorts, Neo still manages to capture most of the familiar themes of brotherhood and teamwork and well-realised characters that made the "Ah Boys To Men" duology a hit among many fans and viewers alike. In fact, the third movie even made a huge chunk of money, grossing a healthy SGD$7.8 million at the Singaporean box office.